Storytelling group reforms to give St. Louisans a voice | St. Louis Public Radio

Storytelling group reforms to give St. Louisans a voice

Nov 7, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 7, 2011 - The first foreign language Amanda Clark ever heard was glossolalia, the religious practice of speaking in tongues.

There's a lot more to this story, but that is the only detail Clark can share. She's preparing to tell the story in front of a room full of strangers on Thursday.

Clark, a mother of two, is a co-founder of the Saint Louis TEN, a group that hosts urban story slams around the city. A mix between the Moth and TEDx, TEN events give 10 storytellers 10 minutes each to share true tales pertaining to a set theme.

This month's theme is "Beyond," inviting stories of "the nearly and dearly departed, the great unknown and reaching your own outer limits," according to the group's Facebook invitation. Clark's story about hearing someone channeling a language of the spirit fits the theme perfectly.

"It's a great story I've always told my friends, but this is the first time to get it out there and get it public," she said.

TEN's storytelling events are about building a community and preserving urban culture by telling stories, many of which storytellers say they've never before shared with another person. While TEN could have accomplished this online with a podcast or YouTube channel, founders say the in-person connection evokes a deep feeling of catharsis, not just for the storyteller but for the audience as well.

Clark planted the seeds for TEN about two years ago when she introduced Stacey Wehe, a co-worker and friend, to podcasts from the Moth, a New York-based nonprofit that holds live storytelling events. Wehe loved them just as Clark did, so the two began listening regularly.

Wehe, an architect, then developed a serious health problem with her throat, including scarring on her vocal cords and esophagus. The pain restricted her from speaking for most of the day.

Her inability to share stories coupled with her new discovery of modern oral storytelling suddenly developed "this burning desire in me to start this," Wehe said.

Wehe got Clark on board with the idea, and they called the Moth headquarters in New York asking for a St. Louis show. The Moth declined, suggesting instead that the pair start their own affiliated group. They did, and MothUp St. Louis held its first story slam in March 2010 in Wehe's living room with about 15 people. Wehe remembers being very nervous to tell her first story, about moving from Illinois to St. Louis.

"I was incredibly shy and introverted," Wehe started to say about herself as a child.

But Clark interrupted: "She is incredibly comfortable up there. It's awesome."

"I don't know where it came from," Wehe responded, smiling.

A year and a half after their first event, the group had to move to a downtown restaurant to accommodate the 200-person audience.

"Word started spreading," Wehe said. "Friends had told friends. People I didn't even know were showing up. It grew unexpectedly and rapidly."

Audiences were growing so large that MothUp St. Louis no longer fit the guidelines set by the Moth in New York, so the group split off, held a farewell event called MothOUT in June and re-emerged as the Saint Louis TEN -- named for the 10 events a year featuring 10 storytellers sharing 10 minute stories.

"We've had the 'It's not you, it's me' conversation with the Moth and will remain good friends, but we're venturing out on our own!" Wehe and Clark wrote on TEN's Facebook wall to explain the name change to participants.

TEN has survived so far on in-kind donations from supporters: A lawyer volunteered to draft a release form so TEN can tape stories and share them online, Clear Channel donated audio equipment, a friend in graphic design designed their logo, and Blueberry Hill donated use of the Duck Room for this month's story slam.

Wehe and Clark readily admit the grant-seeking, advertising and organizing to keep their 10 yearly storytelling events alive take big chunks from their already busy schedules. Clark's youngest is 2 months old, and Wehe sometimes works 70-hour weeks at a downtown architecture firm.

But they show no signs of stopping.

"We're both incredibly passionate about it," Wehe said. "We do it because we love it and people seem to enjoy it. And we'll keep doing it if people keep enjoying it, even if it's only 12 people in my living room."

Lindsay Toler is a freelance writer.